While not a household name in her hometown, the 53-year-old’s work is instantly recognisable. At White Night 2016, her 10-metre-high snub-nose monkey clambering up the Town Hall captivated visitors; her bronze Chimpanzee Hands, which you sit on, has been a fixture of RMIT’s Bowen Lane since 2014.
She is interested in how art “can unite with other worlds” to make change, which has been a challenge. “Even from an art perspective, when I would mention the word environment or conservation to a reporter, the pen would go down … I always had to skirt around it, it was uncool,” she says. “I’m in my own zone, often called an outsider artist.”
She also makes simian-inspired jewellery. As well as monkey hands and finger hooks, her collection includes a gorilla skin cuff imprinted with a pattern identical to the ape’s and a choker featuring a gibbon’s hand that seems to embrace your neck.
Craft Victoria’s exhibition Eloquence: the work of Lisa Roet is online, featuring her jewellery, sculpture and video, while in Windsor, Finkelstein Gallery is showing 30 Years of Drawing, which includes sketches dating back to the beginning of her career, together with WE ARE ANIMAL, a video work created with Chinese Artist Shen Shaomin.
Some of the drawings at Finkelstein are from her travels after university, when she ended up in Berlin as the wall came down. Living in a squat, she was drawn to the zoo, where keepers allowed her access “backstage” and she could draw the chimps with very few people around. She also went to the East Berlin Zoo. “There was this one gorilla in a tiny enclosure, almost like it was in a box. I thought that was amazing; this animal that is the closest to us seemed the one they were most afraid of.”
Hands are recurring themes, often rendered in microscopic detail, illustrating just how closely primates resemble humans. So too does the gesture she captures in her latest creation David Greybeard, the subject of Dr Jane Goodall’s ground-breaking research in 1960. He was made at the request of the Jane Goodall Institute, to mark 60 years since her work in Gombe, Tanzania.
The Greybeard sculpture has his hand outstretched, as though offering something, based on a real life moment with Goodall. Inflation takes just 10 minutes – wind is the one tricky element. Remarkably, once deflated the massive ape will squish down to weigh just 240kg, fitting in a box measuring 1.5m x 1.5m.
In a non-COVID reality, Roet and Greybeard would have been in Vienna with Arnold Schwarzenegger to launch the sculpture as part of a tour with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), then Bordeaux with Leonardo Di Caprio. The worldwide pilgrimage to raise awareness around extinction rates and climate change will kick off next year, once it’s safe to do so.
After years of drawing, sculpting in bronze and other conventional materials, in 2016, Roet created her first inflatable. Created with Airena’s Filippe Reynolds, a pattern is created for each design, similar to one used to make clothes, which is printed and then sewn together.
Goodall’s books introduced Roet to primates when she was a child. Later, zoology and anthropology were ruled out as career paths – sciences were not her strong suit – but an art teacher encouraged her to explore her love of animals through the visual arts.
Working in China over the past decade, Roet has witnessed extreme pollution and climate change first hand. “It’s almost apocalyptic sometimes in Beijing, when the coal is in full flight and the wind is going in a certain direction,” she says. “It’s like living in soup sometimes.”
COVID has highlighted many issues around our relationship with animals: wet markets, the trafficking of wildlife, urban encroachment. Because coronavirus hit the whole world – and in Australia came straight after the bushfires – she says, it’s suddenly hit home what global warming means.
“We’re so human-centric, as an animal, it’s only when [something] happens to us that we really get it,” Roet says. “Empathy is so central to self-awareness.”
David Greybeard will be unveiled at the Arts Centre on December 3; 30 Years of Drawingis at Finkelstein Gallery until January 31.
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Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald